We have no idea what we want as a nation

 

Kristijan Fidanovski, a Macedonian politics student at University College London, talks about current Macedonian-Greek relations, the debate around the Macedonian identity, and the Middle Eastern refugees stuck in Macedonia.

 

Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov

 

 

Huseynov: In December 2015, The Guardian spread information, according to which Macedonian Prime Minister is ready to end the 24-year name dispute with Greece. How true was that information? What is the reason behind the news?

 

Fidanovski: It was very unprofessional of the Guardian to put such a catchy title to an interview in which Gruevski merely reiterates his firm position on the name dispute, perhaps with a slightly softer language than usual. It is important to note that they eventually acknowledged the mistake, apologized to the Prime Minister, and retracted the interview.

While the whole thing was much ado over nothing, it did cause some interesting reactions in Macedonia. In the few hours when it was still unclear whether Gruevski actually said those things or not, some people naively interpreted the interview as an attempt by him to win over moderate voters for the 2016 elections. This is a major misunderstanding of Gruevski’s modus operandi. His DPMNE party has already won four elections not with the support of the moderates, but rather by appealing to right-wingers with its uncompromising toughness towards Greece. The Prime Minister knows very well that even the slightest departure from his anti-Greek rhetoric would cause irreparable damage to his popular appeal.

 

 

What is the level of relations between Macedonia and Greece at present? And how strongly does the name dispute influence these relations?

 

Many people in Macedonia celebrated Syriza’s first electoral win in February 2015 because they expected the far-left party to focus on the country’s crippled economy and thus sideline any non-economic issues, including the name dispute. Unfortunately, this proved to be little more than wishful thinking.

On a diplomatic level, relations between the two countries are doubtlessly better, especially after the two historic bilateral meetings of the foreign ministers Poposki and Kotzias. On a practical level, these meetings mean virtually nothing for the name negotiations, which have been frozen for years and are unlikely to restart anytime soon.

Indeed, Syriza might not care about Macedonia at all, but its coalition partner Independent Greeks does, and they have repeatedly assured the nation that no concessions would be made to Macedonia on their watch. Besides, let us not forget that in February 1994, 1.5 million Greeks took to the streets in Athens to protest against Macedonia calling itself Macedonia. Less than a generation later, any Greek government would be foolish to underestimate the importance of Macedonia’s name to its citizens.

 

 

Since independence, Macedonians have long struggled to strengthen their national identity despite harsh pressures from Greece and Bulgaria. Furthermore, Macedonia has a large Albanian community. Can we say this nation-building process has been completed or are Macedonians still facing an identity crisis?

 

Identity crisis is probably a euphemism for what we are facing. Unfortunately, Macedonians do not quite know yet what they want as a nation. Some celebrate Putin’s defiance of the West and demand a similar attitude from Macedonian politicians, whom they then criticize for the country’s slow progress towards European integration. They keep insisting on the importance of the historical pan-Slavic bond with Moscow, even though direct investment from Russia remains insignificant in Macedonia compared to Western capital. At least, Macedonians are relatively united in the attitude towards their neighbors: they treat Greece and Bulgaria with suspicion, but at the same time hurry to spend their holidays in these two countries. Finally, the relationship between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians has improved, though probably not because of an increase in people’s awareness, but rather because Macedonia has recently been more polarized along political than along ethnic lines.

 

 

The next question deals with another topic. Over the past few months Macedonia has become one of the countries suffering from a huge influx of refugees from the Middle East. How would you describe the current situation? In what ways do the refugees affect Macedonian politics and the lives of ordinary citizens?

 

This question brings me to one of the biggest problems in Macedonia: the lack of verifiable statistics. The best example to illustrate this is that our last population census was carried out in 2002. Therefore, the fact that there is no efficient mechanism to deal with issues like the refugee crisis comes as little surprise. There have been dozens of conflicting data as to how many migrants have entered Macedonia this year, let alone how many of them are war refugees as opposed to economic migrants, or how many have applied for asylum. However, our politicians do not seem too preoccupied with this issue since the demonstration of solidarity with the migrants would score few political points in a country where human rights stories have never really sold newspapers. On a brighter note, one must compliment the admirable work done by NGOs in this regard. While politicians debate about who finances them and with what agenda, they respond by making a real difference at the refugee camps.

 

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